Nigel Melville, Director of Professional Rugby at the RFU, has come out strongly against the recent plans by the Premiership to increase the number of A-League games from 10 this season, up from 5 last season, to 22 next year in an attempt to mirror the full Premiership season.
Melville, presumably aggrieved at the way his plans to introduce a ‘buddying-up’ system were railroaded by the Premiership last season, is more than a little disappointed.
He believes that giving youngsters the opportunity to play in the Championship and National One provides them with a far better introduction into the top tiers of national rugby, playing as they do alongside some vastly experienced and talented players, as opposed to isolating them in their own Premiership A-League.
…I think the Championship is the best option for younger players because it’s on a Saturday, it’s highly competitive and you’re playing in a league where you learn to win
(The Rugby Paper – Sunday 3 September)
And it is hard to argue against the benefits that will accrue to a talented 20 year old playing, say, in the back row alongside the likes of Makaafi, Narraway and Preece, or in the centres with Stevens, Grove or Tuitupou, or in the front row with Tolmie, Litchfield, Brown, Boulton and Nilsen. You just can’t recreate that sort of experience artificially.
That’s of course supposing that clubs like Cov have opportunities for Academy players in their side. Cov now runs its own Development Academy and surely the intention here is to produce enough local talent of our own to avoid having to rely on the likes of Wasps or Leicester to provide us with what would amount to little more than cover for our own players as the squad currently stands.
Good as a Jack Willis is, would we want him for perhaps 10 games a season at the expense of one of the current crop of Coventry back rowers, and I include the likes of Daynes and Povoas in that, as well as Makaafi, Narraway and Preece.
Probably not, to be honest.
However, there is of course another, slightly more selfish, reason that perhaps underlies Melville’s latest comments.
Both Championship and National One sides rely heavily on the Premiership clubs to bolster their squads with a number of Academy players. This is a far more cost-effective way of increasing squad sizes and with so many clubs, especially in the Championship, struggling to keep their financial heads above water, the use of dual registration players/loanees makes complete sense. Coventry now seem to be going down an altogether different route, one that will make the club far more self-sufficient in terms of player numbers than many other clubs both in National One and even the Championship…and both Jon Sharp and Rowland Winter deserve huge praise in turning what had long been seen as something of a pipe-dream into a reality.
All of which makes Cameron Gray’s decision to play for Wasps Academy an interesting one. He’s clearly an outstanding prospect, having already played for England Counties at U20s and is bound to be attracting attention from other clubs.
Maybe Monday’s appearance was just a one-off and he’ll be back with us as member of our own senior squad (I think he’s been promoted from the Development Squad…?), but if it’s not and the intention is for Cameron to have a run in the A-league, then he’s had to make an intriguing choice. Playing on a Monday with Wasps Academy means that he wouldn’t be able to play for Cov on a Saturday before an A game and, with Tom Poole out injured for a while by the look of it and Tom Jubb also suffering from a slight hip problem, the chances are he’d be packing alongside either George Oram and Niles Dacres before too long, both of whom represented England Counties last season. At 20 that would seem the next step up for someone with the obvious talent that Cameron has.
Cameron Gray’s first outing with Wasps’ Academy, a side which also included George Oghre, on Monday doesn’t appear to have been a particularly happy one. The game, played at Broadstreet, ended up a very one-sided affair with a final score of Wasps 21 Newcastle Falcons 67. Newcastle dominated and it appears the set pieces weren’t Wasps’ strong point.
But there’s the rub, stay with Cov and work with seasoned pros who know the game inside out, or venture into the Academy of one of the Premiership elite and benefit from the complete package that goes with being one of the top clubs in Europe.
Certainly sounds tempting.
Especially for players with the potential of Cameron. But there are some reservations attached to such a move…
One would be that some of the Premiership clubs have small squads, of which Wasps is one, and by its own admission.
Are clubs with undersized squads going to come calling for players from junior sides like Cov when they can’t put together a full A side from their own numbers, when perhaps those players would be better off remaining a part of a National One/Championship set up?
I’m not for a minute suggesting that is the case with Cameron, he’s far too good a player for that, just that it is a possible scenario.
Even on Wasps’ own messageboard following he game on Monday, posters were suggesting:
From the twitter updates, we seemed to be getting mullered. And yes to someone’s question, we have a very small squad. And yes, it is quite likely some invitees are there to be ‘looked at.’ I have a feeling that at least one of our recent signings arrived that way, if not more.
Is anyone missing from the senior academy?
Don’t know if we have enough.
It does gives some weight to Melville’s belief that allowing Premiership Academy players the opportunity to play in the Championship and National provides them with a better grounding in the game than ring fencing them in their own elite A League which maybe won’t be as competitive, especially if there are teams with squad sizes that make it so difficult to field a full academy side.
Okay, basing an argument around the opinions of a couple of supporters who weren’t even at the game might be somewhat tenuous, but how about considering those of none other than Saracens DoR Mark McCall who, according to a recent article in the Daily Telegraph, has ‘rubbished’ the PRL’s plans to increase the number of A League games still further next season, seeing it as:
a bid to replace the Championship as the second tier of English rugby
So there’s even some disharmony within their own ranks, then?
However, McCall’s comments aren’t based on any moral view as to the rights or wrongs of whether the Premiership should spread it’s empire still further. No, his reasons are purely pragmatic in nature:
We (Saracens) would need to employ 10 more players, we would need to employ 10 more staff and within the salary cap I don’t know how we could have a 22 game A League…they are all mouths to feed, they are all people to be looked after on a day-to-day basis. It is probably as far as it can go now
Which goes back to my earlier concerns.
Judging by what McCall has to say, probably less well. His seems to be something of a lone voice though amongst Premiership clubs which is a shame, as according to The Telegraph even this season, with just the 10 A League games, some:
…Premiership clubs will struggle to fulfil those fixtures with their current squads, with Worcester Warriors understood to be relying upon university students to bolster their numbers
If Premiership clubs don’t have the funding needed to support a full 22 game A League season, then it would have to be a non-starter, despite the benefits of such a proposal.
It looks as if, judging from the comments made by their own supporters, even Wasps might be struggling to put out sides that are as competitive as perhaps it would like at this level. McCall may not share the same reasons for not wanting the A-League to stretch to 22 games next season as Melville, but both appear fundamentally in agreement. And that is a concern, especially if the Premiership DoRs aren’t united behind the scheme.
I am really encouraged by the fact that Cov this season aren’t having to rely on the likes of Tom Howe and Owain James, great prospects though they are. I’d welcome them, or players of similar ability, with open arms should injuries and enforced absence ever mean that we can’t put out a side that makes us competitive; of course I would.
But I’d far rather Cov be able to rely on its own senior squad, whilst also developing it’s own Academy players to a level that enables them to fit into the senior squad without any noticeable decrease in the effectiveness of the team…and that would include the likes of Cameron Gray.
If other National One sides are less fortunate, then dual registered players and loanees should be allowed to supplement core numbers BUT with a reduction in the current limit of 10 EAPs back to a more sensible number of 4 or 5, and then only if the Premiership decides not to go with the 22 games A League next season. If they do opt to increase the number of games, then judging by McCall’s comments, loaning players out to Tiers 2 and 3, or effectively 3 and 4 if this does go ahead, just won’t be practicable.
For reference, this weeks A League results from earlier in the week were:
Bath United 13 65 Saracens Storm
Worcester Cavaliers 12 61 Leicester Tigers
Wasps 21 67 Newcastle Falcons
Sale Jets 7 22 Northampton Wanderers
Harlequins 9 20 Exeter Braves
London Irish 19 38 Gloucester United
From the Moseley Supporters’ website
Adult – £15.00
Concession – £11.00
Students – £11.00(with valid SU card)
16’s & under – free when accompanied by an adult
When you’re throwing everything including the kitchen sink at getting promoted, then a coachload times a few quid each may make a difference.
I hear they’re aiming for a crowd significantly higher than last December.
Any one of them would have been a privilege to watch, but if only had the one choice, who would it be?